A photovoltaic array is a linked collection of photovoltaic modules, which are in turn made of multiple interconnected solar cells. The cells convert solar energy into direct current electricity via the photovoltaic effect. The power that one module can produce is seldom enough to meet requirements of a home or a business, so the modules are linked together to form an array. Most PV arrays use an inverter to convert the DC power produced by the modules into alternating current that can plug into the existing infrastructure to power lights, motors, and other loads. The modules in a PV array are usually first connected in series to obtain the desired voltage; the individual strings are then connected in parallel to allow the system to produce more current. Solar arrays are typically measured by the electrical power they produce, in watts, kilowatts, or even megawatts.
At high noon on a cloudless day at the equator, the power of the sun is about 1 kW/m², on the Earth's surface, to a plane that is perpendicular to the sun's rays. As such, PV arrays can track the sun through each day to greatly enhance energy collection. However, tracking devices add cost, and require maintenance, so it is more common for PV arrays to have fixed mounts that tilt the array and face due South in the Northern Hemisphere (in the Southern Hemisphere, they should point due North). The tilt angle, from horizontal, can be varied for season, but if fixed, should be set to give optimal array output during the peak electrical demand portion of a typical year. For large systems, the energy gained by using tracking systems outweighs the added complexity (trackers can increase efficiency by 30% or more). PV arrays that approach or exceed one megawatt often use solar trackers. Accounting for clouds, and the fact that most of the world is not on the equator, and that the sun sets in the evening, the correct measure of solar power is insolation – the average number of kilowatt-hours per square meter per day. For the weather and latitudes of the United States and Europe, typical insolation ranges from 4 kWh/m²/day in northern climes to 6.5 kWh/m²/day in the sunniest regions. Typical solar panels have an average efficiency of 12%, with the best commercially available panels at 20%. Thus, a photovoltaic installation in the southern latitudes of Europe or the United States may expect to produce 1 kWh/m²/day. A typical "150 watt" solar panel is about a square meter in size. Such a panel may be expected to produce 1 kWh every day, on average, after taking into account the weather and the latitude. In the Sahara desert, with less cloud cover and a better solar angle, one can obtain closer to 8.3 kWh/m²/day. The unpopulated area of the Sahara desert is over 9 million km², which if covered with solar panels would provide 630 terawatts total power. The Earth's current energy consumption rate is around 13.5 TW at any given moment (including oil, gas, coal, nuclear, and hydroelectric).
Other factors affect PV performance. Photovoltaic cells' electrical output is extremely sensitive to shading. When even a small portion of a cell, module, or array is shaded, while the remainder is in sunlight, the output falls dramatically due to internal 'short-circuiting' (the electrons reversing course through the shaded portion of the p-n junction). Therefore it is extremely important that a PV installation is not shaded at all by trees, architectural features, flag poles, or other obstructions like continuously parked cars. Sunlight can be absorbed by dust, fallout, or other impurities at the surface of the module. This can cut down the amount of light that actually strikes the cells by as much as half. Maintaining a clean module surface will increase output performance over the life of the module. Module output and life are also degraded by increased temperature. Allowing ambient air to flow over, and if possible behind, PV modules reduces this problem. However, effective module lives are typically 25 years or more , so replacement costs should be considered as well.
Solar panels can be used on spacecraft, particularly when they are in the inner part of the solar system. They have been designed to pivot on spacecraft, so that they will always be in the direct path of solar rays. In order to optimize the amount of energy generated, solar panels on spacecraft can be equipped with a Fresnel lens, which concentrates sunlight. Because of these efforts to maximize electric production, and the fact that the Sun is mostly the only source of energy, the construction of solar cells on spacecraft could be one of the highest costs. When journeying to outer parts of the solar system (or beyond), nuclear reactors or radioisotope thermal generators are preferred, as the Sun's rays are too weak at such extreme distances to power a spacecraft. The ESA is researching the possibility of solar power satellites that would generate electricity in space and then beam it to Earth via laser or microwaves. In addition, solar power is being considered for use as a propulsion mechanism in lieu of chemical propulsion.